The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky

The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky (1995)

  • Director: John Kent Harrison
  • Written by: Norman Maclean, Robert Wayne
  • Running Time: 95 minutes
  • Language: English
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
  • Cast: Sam Elliott, Jerry O'Connell, Ricky Jay, Molly Parker, Callum Keith Rennie, Alan C. Peterson, Don S. Davis, Robert Wisden, Tom Butler, Michael Tayles, Frank Cassini, Campbell Lane

Recently I received a call from a friend who was in a rather strange predicament. He had lost his driver’s license due to an unpaid parking ticket and was diligently hiding it from his wife. One day, before she left for work, she asked him to hop on over to a certain large, discount department store and pick up a bunch of things before she got home. Sadly, his usual, “I’ve taken up walking everywhere because it’s good for me” sham wasn’t going to work out this time. So, yeah, I got the call. “Can you give me a ride?” he asked, laying out the particulars of his dilemma. Alas, because we are friends, I decided to go along with his charade, figuring that, in the end, I might find something good to watch in one of those 2 for 10 bulk bins and because I would know that whatever favour I might need would be returned in kind someday (Mark, you reading this, bitch?). Anyways, in amongst the million copies of “Bachelor Party” and “Independence Day”, I was able to scrounge up a few obscurities. One of them was a DVD 2-Pack, and the asking price, five bucks, was right up my broke-ass alley. Titled “The Sam Elliott Double Feature”, the set (a pair of tv movies) was calling out to me to buy it. There he was, Sam Elliott, with his trademark bushy moustache and old beat-up cowboy hat – and he was looking at me, and, no, not in that homoerotic way, but in that reassuring, ‘this is gonna taste real bad but it’ll clear up my throat’ kind of way. Ah yes, this set was mine.

When I got home and began to examine the pack, I realized that it could have just as easily been called “The Jerry O’Connell Double Feature” as he appears in both films alongside Sam. I guess, however, if you’re trying to hoodwink some nickel and dime shopper into buying a set of mediocre made for tv movies fabricated to look like “real” movies, it’s easier to go with ageing but reassuring smile of Sam Elliott, then the arrogant smirk of some young-punk like O’Connell. Because reassuring don’t lie. Well, at least that’s my theory on the matter. The movies were “The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky” and “Blue River” and having reviewed (or whatever that thing is that I do?) “Blue River” last week, I felt compelled to get this second flick out of my system because the shit’s all backed up in there. I have to say, of the two, “The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky” was the one that I actually got a genuine kick out of. Sadly, it wasn’t until I finished screening both films did I realize just how far reaching the “The Sam Elliott Double Feature” fabrication went; the bushy moustache, the trademark dead animal on Elliott’s face, touted so prominently on the cover of the 2 Pack, was nowhere to be found… in either movie. Sombitch shaved it off. What the hell?

"The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky” isn’t so much a movie as it is a series of situations (or memories) played out for our amusement. Based on a story by Norman Maclean called ‘USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook and A Hole in the Sky’, this film takes his semi-fictionalized accounts of working for the United States Forest Service in northwestern Montana just following World War 1 and mulches them together into a series of goofy skit-like segments which then masquerades as a coming of age story. If you’re going into the film expecting some type of evocative experience on par with Maclean’s other adapted work “A River Runs Through It”, then you’re sadly fly-fishing into an empty lake bed, because you're simply not going to find it here. What it is, however, is a congenial message film that seems to stretch out and relax in its scenic dense forest British Columbia, Canada filming location.

When the film opens, we learn that 17-year-old Mac (Jerry O'Connell) is a part of the Selway Forestry Service, dynamiting mountains to make way for roads, railroad tiles and other such amenities – speaking to the fast approaching industrialization of America. On his crew is Mr. Smith (Don S. Davis), an old fogie whose suggestions that Mac not put his fingers into his mouth after he’s handled dynamite go unheeded (that is until Mac wakes up with a monster headache); Canada (Robert Wisden) whose mild-mannered attitude and squared glasses seem to shock and awe Mac, for whatever reason; Mr. McBride (Tom Butler), an opinionated guy who is desperately working with his son to get enough money to start up his own business; McBride’s kid, Red (Michael Tayles -- gliding in goofball mode), seems to parrot whatever is being said around him. At one point, Mac openly enquires if Red is even capable of original thought. As it turns out, Red is a brilliant pugilist, who could probably give 'Minotauro' Nogueira a run for his money if given half the chance, something Mac witnesses late in the film. Lastly, there’s chubby, bearded Hawkes (played by real-life magician and card expert Ricky Jay) as the sneaker-wearing velvety Cook. Mac calls him a “40 cent piece” and suggests that he’s a worthless tool, often to the Cook’s face. The leader of the pack, the Ranger, Bill Bell, played by Sam Elliott (in another sturdy performance), is the stern but extremely likeable boss, who, despite the hard work, keeps his boys jovial, thanks mainly to an abundant supply of home brewed liquor, something that, apparently, can be made from peach juice.

Following the introductions of the various folks, we soon realize that Mac’s cocky attitude and constant antagonizing of the Cook has gotten him hip deep in a mountain of shit, and his boss, Bell, is losing patience with him. As a penance, Mac is exiled to the hills to occupy a now vacant lightning look-out station. As it turns out, the fellow up there before scampered off into the night, frightened by a rattler. This helps to establish Mac’s big talent, if you can call it that. Mac is a walker, dammit. Yes, he’s a walker. He happily pronounces to anyone within earshot that he can “outwalk anyone in the Forest Service.” He doesn’t drink water either, because that’ll make him sick or something. This first journey, which is symbolic and features the metaphorical rattler hiding in the woods, eats up a good portion of the film’s running time, allowing for the producer’s to enter into the second major element of the story – a card game. When Mac returns from the mountain a few days later, humbled by the weather, a snake (that might not exist?), a telephone pole, and the notion that, to Bell, he’s an expendable commodity, he’s reluctantly arm-twisted into jumping in on a major league gambling scheme being cooked up by Bell and, well, the Cook. All I need is a hook. Huh?

The scheme involves the feathery Hawkes -- who is in actuality a hardcore card shark from the big city, brought in specifically by Bell -- entering into a high stakes poker game back in town, using the wages of Bell’s crew. With the knowledge that Hawkes could run rings around any of the high-stakes gamblers (hilariously credited in the film as Big Hat, Bigger Hat and Biggest Hat) back in Hamilton, Bell is confident that he could double or triple the crew’s wages helping to comfort them through the fast-approaching winter. Thing is, he needs everyone on board including the pissy-acting Mac. In the end, they all agree, but Mac decides to get into Hamilton on his own terms – he’s gonna walk it. It’s a two day hike, and Mac is determined to do it in a single day. Even though this second unwarranted journey ends with Mac staring starry eyed up into the freckled period face of cute as a button waitress, actress Molly Parker, it also teaches him that he isn’t invincible. Working solely as a symbolic note about Mac's break into manhood, into maturity, and, ultimately, death, the film's center piece (or high point) seems structured around this nature hike, which, in the end, feels slightly silly. The inevitable poker game is exciting, topped off by a round of bare-knuckle barroom brawling. Sadly, the film goes out on a depressing note, as Mac suddenly becomes aware of the power of women. At least that's the gist of it.

There are lots of reasons to watch this film. The beautiful lush forest greener than green scenery in British Columbia where this film was photographed (by the irrepressible Henry M. Lebo, I might add) is absolutely breathtaking. Also on tap is an impressive list of Canadian character actors including Callum Keith Rennie (2008's "The X Files: I Want to Believe"), Alan C. Peterson (1999's "Killer Deal"), Jay Brazeau (1993's "The Diary of Evelyn Lau") and Molly Parker (1996's "Kissed"). In any other country, Molly Parker, with her plain features and period perfect face, might be considered a mediocre looker, but in Canada, where I live, she’s a modest favourite – and she can act like nobody's business. Her work in the latter half of the film, as Mac’s love interest, is quite memorable considering how silly it feels. The best part of the film, for sure, is watching Ricky Jay do his business with a deck of cards. This guy is a master of the slight of hand and he’s in all of his glory in front of John Kent Harrison’s camera. I couldn’t help but be marvelled by his trickery.

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